'Hey, muzungu! You just crossed the equator'

Equator Uganda Africa muzungo

The equator marks more or less half way on the journey for us 'dumb, rich white' folk (muzungos)


This week we crossed the equator. It felt amazing, a true milestone and we celebrated. Well, as much as we could, considering that we were in a crammed mini-bus and Steve and I were not even sitting next to each other.

Still, we celebrated. I was sitting behind Steve and kissed him on the neck, we had huge smiles on our faces and we pulled out our Lonely Planet Africa to look at exactly where we were on the map. It came as quite a surprise to find we were exactly half way between Cairo and Cape Town.

We were the only white tourists in the mini-bus and I wondered if the locals around us would be confused by our strange celebrations. Probably not – probably we were just some more weird, inexplicable “muzungus”.

Muzungu means white. As in: “Hey, muzungu come here!” “Hey, muzungu buy this!”

I’m told it’s a common term in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania and probably other parts of well-touristed East Africa too. But Uganda is the first time I have come across it and I don’t like it.

I hate it when people are given labels and this one is a clanger. Labels reduce individual human beings to ‘things’ and my suspicions about this term being essentially racist – shorthand for ‘dumb, rich white person’ were confirmed by a Ugandan friend.   

Of course, any widely used term will be used differently by different people. I’m sure I’ve heard it used with affection many times. It has also been appropriated by the local white population as a badge of pride, much in the same way ‘nigger’ has been appropriated by African Americans, and ‘wog’ has been appropriated by southern European Australians; you can buy a tourist T-shirt with the word “muzungu” on it.

Appropriation is a way of fighting back but I have chosen a different path. I am confronting people, asking why they call me muzungu and not madam, in the same respectful way that over here it is common to, and I myself address people as “excuse me, sir/madam”.

More recently if someone yells “Hey, muzungu” to me I yell back “yes, black”. I did this yesterday and an elderly Ugandan gentleman walking in front of me cracked up laughing – it made my morning.

That man’s laughter felt almost as good as the two times I have been called “aunty”, the most common African term of respect. Once was by a young guy at a bus station who probably used that term because he heard me argue with someone else about using muzungu, the other time was by a very young child I was playing with who did it simply because it was natural.

Now we will be heading more and more into areas where there are white populations: tourists, expats, volunteers – old colonialists. Heck, we’re heading towards what was once known in Europe as ‘white southern Africa’

I’m not naïve enough to think the muzungu labelling will stop – in fact, it will probably get worse. I just hope I get a few “aunties” thrown into the mix too.

Chrisanthi Giotis